As much as I love escapist science fiction, the way to get to the future for real is to avoid killing each other and ourselves in the present. We can’t count on capitalist techbros selling joyrides to billionaire tourists.
People tend to liken space exploration to expansion on Earth—pushing the frontier. But on the edge of terrestrial frontiers, people were seeking, say, gold or more farmable land. In space, explorers can’t be sure of the value proposition at their destination. “So we have to be a little bit careful about thinking that it will just somehow pay off,” Weinzierl points out.
Weinzierl and Rousseau find the idea of a sustained human presence in space inspiring, but they’re not sure when or how it will work from a financial perspective. After all, inspiration doesn’t pay invoices. “We’d love to see that happening,” Rousseau says—he thinks lots of people would. “As long as we’re not the ones footing the bill.”
Many taxpayers would probably agree. As hard as it is for space fans to believe, most people don’t place much value on astronaut adventures. A 2018 Pew poll asked participants to rate the importance of nine of NASA’s key missions as “top priority,” “important but lower priority,” or “not too important/should not be done.” Just 18 and 13 percent of people thought sending humans to Mars and to the moon, respectively, was a top priority. That placed those missions at the bottom of the list in terms of support, behind more popular efforts such as monitoring Earth’s climate, watching for dangerous asteroids and doing basic scientific research on space in general. —Scientific American